Volodymyr Zelensky’s Jewishness https://mosaicmagazine.com/picks/jewish-world/2022/03/volodymyr-zelenskys-jewishness/

March 3, 2022 | Gal Beckerman
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Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, was born in the Soviet Union, where “Jews were perceived as the eternal outsiders, possible fifth columnists, the ‘rootless cosmopolitans’ of Stalin’s imagination,” as Gal Beckerman writes. Beckerman traces Zelensky’s unlikely path to the top leadership role in Ukraine, and what it reveals about Ukrainian-Jewish life.

When asked about what his . . . Jewishness has meant to him, Zelensky has been blasé. In an interview in 2020, he said he came from “an ordinary Soviet Jewish family,” adding that “most Jewish families in the Soviet Union were not religious.” What this hides, though, is the reality that Jewish identity didn’t exist in the Soviet Union, because it couldn’t. To be a Jew from the time of Stalin onward was to have a stamp in your internal passport that marked you as such (just as a Ukrainian or Latvian national identity was also indicated). There was very little opportunity for Jewish community, religious practice, or even bare-bones cultural expression.

Until the late 1980s, gathering for something as innocuous as a Passover seder was practically a subversive act, and teaching Hebrew was simply not allowed.

By the time Zelensky came of age, three or four generations of Soviet Jews had experienced their Jewish identity as a hollow thing, nothing but a black mark on a passport and a sense of peoplehood born of exclusion and a second-class status. . . . When the Soviet Union began buckling to pressure to let Jews emigrate in the 1970s, many took the opportunity to do so. . . . By the early 1990s, just after the Soviet collapse, the permitted trickle became a deluge, and about 1.5 million headed to the United States and Israel.

Zelensky and his family were part of the few hundred thousand Jews who stayed, content to assimilate in a post-Soviet world, in which Zelensky found success, first as an actor and then as a politician. . . . In the eastern Ukrainian city of Dnipro, not far from where Zelensky grew up, there are now ten synagogues and a gargantuan community center called Menorah, opened in 2012, that reportedly serves 40,000 people a day—even though there are only 60,000 Jews in Dnipro. By 2019, a Pew Research Center poll found Ukraine the most accepting of Jews among all Central and East European countries.

Read more on Atlantic: https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2022/02/zelensky-ukraine-president-jewish-hero/622945/